High-Tech for Real World; 2004 Toyota Prius Offers Big-Car Amenities, Plus Decent Performance

Article excerpt

Byline: Dan Scanlan, Times-Union staff writer

We cruised slowly through the historic part of St. Augustine Halloween weekend like a ghost ship in the night, our 2004 Toyota Prius' progress on the cobbled streets almost silent bar the slight slap of its tires on the ancient roadway.

The Prius can travel up to 35 mph on its electric motor alone, but in deference to the restless spirits (and tourists) said to wander the 16th and 17th Century byways of America's oldest city, we were zapping along at about 15 mph.

But as soon as we got to U.S. 1, we punched the drive-by-wire gas pedal, activated the Prius' SULEV (Super-Ultra-Low-Emission-Vehicle) gasoline engine and merged with traffic to drive home with 45 miles-per-gallon on the center screen.

The Prius takes the world of the low-emission, high-gas-mileage hybrid car to a new level. It has as much room as a mid-size car on the footprint of a compact and a very efficient gasoline engine hooked to an electric motor and batteries to offer power and economy that recharges itself -- no extension cord required.

The Prius was introduced in Japan in 1997. The subsequent U.S. version got a few more ponies, up to 52 mpg city/42 mpg highway and a potential 600-mile range per tank of fossil fuel. For 2004, Toyota moved its hybrid up in the world. The result is the second-generation Prius seen here, almost 6 inches longer than the 2003 model, but still compact, with EPA estimates of 60-mpg city/51-mpg highway. We averaged 40-45 mpg.

The shape is a sort of angled arc from the wedge-shaped nose to the high, almost Pontiac Aztek-like tail, with a very slick coefficient of drag of 0.26.

Big multi-element headlights swept up the front fenders over a flat bumper with fishy mouth-like lower air intake. The short hood meets the large windshield at almost the same angle, while flared fenders frame small 15-inch alloy wheels with low-rolling resistance P135/65R15-inch Goodyear radials. The near-horizontal fastback window stops at a small rear spoiler before tumbling home via a near-vertical tail glass. Huge clear-lensed taillights accent the corners, while an aero panel covers stuff under the rear bumper, a tiny tailpipe hidden from sight.

It's a look that had some people running up to see it, most liking the overall shape and calling it "cute," "stylish" and "futuristic." My wife liked it as well, but we found the rear window, with that bar between the top and bottom windows blocked some rearward view. Those who rode in it called the Prius "a bit of the 21st century," while my son's classmates said "it drives so quietly."

To get inside, keep the optional Smart Entry and Start keyless key fob in your pocket. It sends out a signal that automatically unlocks the driver's door when you get near. Once there, the four-spoke steering wheel faces dark gray plastic that runs all the way to the digital speedometer/gas gauge/transmission indicator at the far-away base of the windshield, with pewter plastic accents relieving some of the gray. No key is needed as you put your foot on the brake and hit the "Power" button. That activates the 7-inch satellite navigation screen, slit digital speedometer, a/c system's electric compressor and turns on the electric motor.

That sat-nav screen may be flanked by buttons, which you tap to access the stereo, a/c and energy-monitoring menu displays. The touch-sensitive screen does the rest, allowing you to adjust the a/c fan or vent position, select a specific radio station or turn on the energy-monitoring screen. If you aren't in the mood to play Star Trek, the button-filled steering wheel can handle some functions. Stereo volume/mode selector/scan buttons and a/c and temperature activation button are on the left. On the right, buttons to turn on the sat-nav map or the energy monitoring are on top, with a voice-activation system to control the satellite navigation system and work the stereo. …